Life and Death on Mt .Everest
Sherpas and Himalayan Mountaineering
The Sherpas were dead, two more victims of an attempt to scale Mt. Everest. Members of a French climbing expedition, sensitive perhaps about leaving the bodies where they could not be recovered, rolled them off a steep mountain face. One body, however, crashed to a stop near Sherpas on a separate expedition far below. They stared at the frozen corpse, stunned. They said nothing, but an American climber observing the scene interpreted their thoughts: Nobody would throw the body of a white climber off Mt. Everest. For more than a century, climbers from around the world have journ-eyed to test themselves on Everest's treacherous slopes, enlisting the expert aid of the Sherpas who live in the area. Drawing on years of field research in the Himalayas, renowned anthropologist Sherry Ortner presents a compelling account of the evolving relationship between the mountaineers and the Sherpas, a relationship of mutual dependence and cultural conflict played out in an environment of mortal risk.
Ortner explores this relationship partly through gripping accounts of expeditions--often in the climbers' own words--ranging from nineteenth-century forays by the British through the historic ascent of Hillary and Tenzing to the disasters described in Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. She reveals the climbers, or "sahibs," to use the Sherpas' phrase, as countercultural romantics, seeking to transcend the vulgarity and materialism of modernity through the rigor and beauty of mountaineering. She shows how climbers' behavior toward the Sherpas has ranged from kindness to cruelty, from cultural sensitivity to derision. Ortner traces the political and economic factors that led the Sherpas to join expeditions and examines the impact of climbing on their traditional culture, religion, and identity. She examines Sherpas' attitude toward death, the implications of the shared masculinity of Sherpas and sahibs, and the relationship between Sherpas and the increasing number of women climbers. Ortner also tackles debates about whether the Sherpas have been "spoiled" by mountaineering and whether climbing itself has been spoiled by commercialism.
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What Reviewers Are Saying
[Ortner's book] written so clearly and with such evident fascination with the subject that it's more than just accessible to lay readers: it's captivating. I've had anthropology texts put me to sleep right after morning coffee, but this one kept me awake at night. -- Michael Parfit New York Times Book Review Having lived and worked with the Sherpas for more than thirty years as a serious anthropologist, Ortner is in an ideal position to introduce the other, unknown culture involved with Himalayan climbing... Fascinating. -- Pico Iyer New York Review of Books The book brings us a much richer understanding of the cultural partnership underpinning Himalayan mountaineering... Life and Death on Mt. Everest is a swift and canny guide to this uncharted territory. -- Alison Demos Lingua Franca Sherry Ortner reveals the details of Sherpa life on and off the mountain and sweeps away a century of misguided characterizations... [This] book is one of those rare crossover works, a scholarly exploration of Sherpa culture that the lay reader (climber or not) will find utterly fascinating. Newsday [A] first-rate study... [Ortner] is an intelligent and fair-minded scholar who has combed the mountain literature and fused it with what she observed in the field. -- David Craig Los Angeles Times A remarkable display of agile fieldwork, sensitive to all the distinctive shadings that compose [the] subject... Ortner arrives at a complex but cohesive portrait of the century-long Sherpa association with the mountaineers... Kirkus Reviews This is not another nail-biting saga of alpine disaster, but rather--finally--an authoritative study of the group that has made summiting 8,000-meter Himalayan peaks possible for Westerners... Ortner retells the Everest story from the Sherpa point of view... Outside A fascinating examination of the world of the Sherpas... [Ortner's] book is an eye-opening, behind-the-scenes look at mountaineering. Library Journal A well-written and thorough account...and the only book on this topic. Choice A fascinating new study of the interaction between Western climbers and Sherpas... -- Susan Spano Los Angeles Times
Anthropologist Ortner's (Columbia) ethnographic immersion into Sherpa life and how it has been affected by the international climbing culture is a remarkable display of agile fieldwork, sensitive to all the distinctive shadings that compose her subject. In the valleys and foothills of the Everest massif live the Sherpas, who for the last 100 years have had their remote outpost unsettled by the influx of mountaineering expeditions run by sahibs (a Sherpa term Ortner uses both ironically and as a handy tag). In an effort to gain a sense of how the two groups interrelate - how much each group's perceptions of the other have validity and in what context - Ortner draws upon a substantial arsenal of ethnographic theory. The work of Clifford Geertz is brought to bear on both camps' intentions and desires; so too Edward Said's notion of orientalism and how it erects ideologically warped imagery. Althusser, Foucault, James Clifford, and Marshall Sahlins help her clear away the fog of colonial complicity and the asymmetries conjured by power and wealth: though she can't slip into the Sherpa perspective like an old pair of shoes for reasons of cultural conditioning, she is ever attentive to it. Ortner is most interested in the nexus of the mountaineers' and Sherpas' values, beliefs, and ideals, and the various relationships that were spawned from their commingling, which often unwittingly reinforced misconceptions. In the records of the mountaineers, she seeks among the representations the allusions within the illusions, measuring the biases and fantasies against the touchstone of the "cumulative record of high-quality ethnographic work." Ortner arrives at a complex but cohesive portrait of the century-long Sherpa association with the mountaineers, an elegant wedding of two distinct cultural strands - with all the inherent harmonies and tensions - a moving picture that shifts focus and emphasis as new elements, from identity politics to the counterculture, come into play. (Kirkus Reviews)